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Pastoralists: coping with climate change

Animal losses during the drought of 2009 in Kenya were severe (Monica Olala/Ministry of Livestock Development, Kenya)
Animal losses during the drought of 2009 in Kenya were severe
Monica Olala/Ministry of Livestock Development, Kenya

Prolonged dry periods and sporadic heavy rain are testing the resilience of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. Traditional mechanisms for coping with climate variability are being stretched to the limit, threatening the survival of pastoral communities. Their plight is made worse as many policymakers fail to appreciate the complexity of pastoralism and some governments fail to recognise pastoralism as a viable form of agriculture.

The most recent example of increased vulnerability attributed to climate change has been in East Africa where prolonged drought has resulted in over 23 million people facing critical food and water shortages, many surviving on handouts from government and donor agencies. Oxfam alone is providing support to 750,000 people. The strain on water and pasture systems and loss of animals in many parts of East Africa has also led to a rise in tribal conflict and increased incidence of cattle raids. In 2009, cross border raids between Uganda and Kenya resulted in hundred of deaths and thousands of animals stolen.

In response to these challenges innovative examples of adaptation being demonstrated by some pastoralism groups, were shared at a recent conference, Pastoralism and Climate Change Adaptation in Africa, held at Egerton University in Nakuru, Kenya. It provided hope that it is possible for pastoralists and their livestock to cope with a changing climate. "There is hope but we must build on indigenous knowledge to build the capacity of pastoralists to survive," said Professor Richard Odingo of the University of Nairobi and member of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Alternative livelihoods

The environment has also become a victim of the predicament faced by pastoralists as many resort to alternative means of livelihood such as charcoal burning and logging to survive. A classic example quoted at the conference was the Maasai rangelands in southern Kenya where the plains have been stripped bare as communities cut every tree for charcoal making.

Prolonged drought in East Africa resulted in over 23 million people facing critical food and water shortages (WRENmedia)
Prolonged drought in East Africa resulted in over 23 million people facing critical food and water shortages

Many pastoralists have also been forced to abandon livestock to pursue sedentary lifestyles in urban centres, resulting in heightened poverty. This is now the case in Somali-inhabited parts of Kenya's north eastern region. The tragedy, conference experts noted, is that governments have little knowledge on how to handle climate change. "The majority of policymakers have no idea how to approach the pastoralist dilemma; all their solutions are wrong and poorly informed," states Odingo. "For millennia, communities have developed ways of coping with adverse weather; hence the starting point for governments and NGOs should be to build on the traditional resilience of communities, accompanied by the introduction of integrated development programmes to bring water, education and markets closer to people."

Migration and dividing herds, two common means of coping with climatic variations, are no longer viable in some areas, warns Yohannes Gebre Michael of Prolinnova. He quoted the invasion of pastoralist lands by commercial farmers and the conversion of rangelands into game parks, which has made migration impossible in parts of Ethiopia. Nevertheless, Gebre added that pastoralists of the Afar and Ogaden regions of Ethiopia are moving into camel keeping rather than maintaining cattle herds. "Camels and goats cope better in times of low pasture and water availability," he says.

Gebre believes that governments are failing by trying to force pastoralists in to sedentary farming, which, he observed, will not succeed unless it evolves naturally. Meanwhile, in West Africa, herders are increasing their mobility and splitting herds, with women and children being tasked to care for small animals (goats and sheep) while men move long distances in search of water and pastures. In other areas, value addition of livestock products, such as hides and skins, and exploitation of other resources, such as honey, is helping many to cope and retain traditional lifestyles.

New technology recommended

Diversification is key to the survival and prosperity of pastoralists (WRENmedia)
Diversification is key to the survival and prosperity of pastoralists

Increasing use of mobile phones has helped farmers obtain and share market information as well as acquire information on pasture availability. The use of new technology is recommended as a critical coping strategy, according to Ali Adan of the National Museums of Kenya. He believes this is particularly important as, "The future is grim, we must control the growing culture of dependency especially in northern Kenya, where the degradation of the environment by new settlements must be checked."

More investment in biotechnology is also required to develop higher quality, easily convertible feeds says Prof Ofelia Omitogon of the University of Obafemi Awololo, Nigeria. "Africa must join the biotechnology revolution and explore areas such as genetically engineered feeds and increase research in genomes in areas of improved feeds and disease control," she observed.

At the end of the four days of conference deliberations at Egerton University, Saidu Oseni, conference convener and climate change research fellow, concluded that, "More efforts need to be made in devising adaptive strategies to help pastoralists survive climate change." Adan agreed, stating that pastoralists need support to become multi-skilled to survive. Education is also vital. As a final message to policymakers, Gebre ended with a plea: "Let's create an enabling environment to help these people solve their own problems."

Written by: Maina Waruru

Date published: July 2010


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